Back in the Game: Tom Tomsick, MD, Produces a Baseball Memoir

Doctor posing in library

Thomas Tomsick, MD, in his office. Behind him, a 1966 photograph, taken by Rocky Colavito, of young Tom with the Cleveland Indians’ pitching coach, inscribed, “Good luck to my Good Buddy Tom — Early Wynn.” Photo by Mayfield Communications / Cindy Starr.

As the bullpen catcher for the Cleveland Indians from 1964 to 1966, Thomas Tomsick had a front-row seat to a historical accomplishment that was less than fully appreciated at the time. A college student with a perfect summer job, he watched the Indians build a pitching legacy, strikeout by strikeout, inning by inning, that would go unmatched until the 1990s.

Dr. Tomsick, an interventional neuroradiologist with the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute, argues in his new memoir, Strike Three! My Years in the ’Pen, that the Indians’ pitching staff was the top strikeout staff in the history of the American League. He writes that, “Just as Ruth, Maris, and Aaron maintain a revered position in baseball circles for their prior-day season and career home-run-hitting accomplishments, perhaps the Big Three [Sam McDowell, Sonny Siebert and Luis Tiant] should be regarded in a similar light” for their strikeout dominance.

Dr. Tomsick will discuss and sign copies of his book ($18.95, Jarndyce & Jarndyce Press) at Joseph Beth Booksellers at 7 p.m. Monday, July 12.

The memoir is newsworthy because the Indians haven’t enjoyed the historical status that their feat – accomplished prior to the era of performance-enhancing drugs — arguably deserves. “The Indians set strikeout records from 1964 to 1968,” noted Dr. Tomsick, a full professor since 1985, at his office in University Hospital. “When your staff does it 3-4-5 years in a row, it should be eye-catching. But it wasn’t. Yet those records stood for 30 years.”

The Indians’ combined pitching staff logged a major league record of 1,189 strikeouts during the 1967 season, while averaging a stunning 7.2 strikeouts per 9 innings. The total strikeouts stood as an American League record until 1997. McDowell, Siebert and Tiant combined for other records – e.g., fewest hits over 9 innings by three starters on the same team — that still stand.

The Indians didn’t accomplish their strikeout prowess in an elite media market, however, and their won-lost records during that period didn’t allow them to spend much time in the national spotlight. Had their hitting matched their pitching, Dr. Tomsick might have written a very different book.   Strike Three!, crafted during an 18-month window of opportunity in which his research responsibilities abated and family matters took him almost weekly to Cleveland, is an earnest and periodically funny memoir that segues into his argument about the Indians’ place in pitching history. Dr. Tomsick’s decision to write the book also followed the admission by the Cincinnati Reds’ pitcher Bronson Arroyo that he had used performance-enhancing drugs from 1998 to 2002, providing Dr. Tomsick with an opportunity to shine a light on pitching feats accomplished prior to the steroid era. While most of the discussion of steroid use has centered on its effect on hitting, Dr. Tomsick writes that, “it remains possible, or even likely, that it had some, if not a similar, direct effect on pitching performance and statistics as well.”

The book’s title, Strike Three!, alludes not only to the Indians’ pitching records, but also to Dr. Tomsick’s exit from baseball.   That magical Cleveland staff was overseen by Early “Gus” Wynn, the legendary pitcher who took over coaching duties for the Indians in 1964 after notching his 300th victory, and then retiring as a player, in 1963. Wynn was a hard-nosed strategist with an eye for talent, and he had reason to believe that the wiry young Tomsick, who did a fair amount of throwing as a bullpen catcher, might, at 6-4 and 200 pounds, do some damage hurling a baseball from a 15-inch mound. Tomsick, on summer break after his first year of medical school, was considering chasing that dream via the minor leagues when, during a semipro game, he suffered a broken finger.

Dr. Tomsick writes lovingly about the new catcher’s mitt, “the Popper,” that he purchased for $15 in 1964. “The Popper had exploded to the ‘bullets’ of Colavito and Davalillo during warm-ups,” he writes. “It had caught Hall of Famer Early Wynn during batting practice. The Popper had warmed up Luis Tiant after he joined the Indians in Yankee Stadium July 19, 1964, warmed up Sonny Siebert before his no-hitter in June, 1965, and warmed up to Sam McDowell’s heat before many of his best games, including consecutive one-hitters in 1966. It had warmed up Don McMahon, Gary Bell, Steve Hargan, Ted Abernathy, Stan Williams, Floyd Weaver, Bob Allen, Dick Radatz – names that will forever spell relief in Tribal lore. It warmed up the staff during record-setting strikeout years.”

Writing the book was fun, said Dr. Tomsick, who still sports a rangy athleticism at 64. “I tried to recall some stories, things of value. It’s not an expose like Ball Four. I didn’t have comments and quips and quotes written down day after day. I had longer memories but fewer stories.”

There are some laughers, as when the future professor is struggling under a wildly spinning popup and caught unawares as a fungo heads his way.

The early chapters are rich with detail about bullpens and the toil of yesteryear’s bullpen catchers, whose job involved catching batting practice, warming up the starting pitcher and warming up relievers in the bullpen – without a mask – for $15 a day ($25 for doubleheaders). The book’s final chapters, filled with charts and statistics, offer good fodder for discussion for baseball fans and, especially, Cleveland Indians fans.

“You can’t compare the status records of today to yesterday because a lot of what has been accomplished more recently has been accomplished in an era of steroids,” Dr. Tomsick said. “It’s only natural that players want to try to improve themselves, whether it’s through surgery on an elbow, like Tommy John, or something else. My focus isn’t that you shouldn’t use performance-enhancing drugs. My focus is a topic – the Indians’ strikeout records – that is worth examining in its historical context.”

— Cindy Starr

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